Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good Preacher Gone Bad

I have been in church all my life and have not heard the account of the Bad Shepherd preached from a pulpit a single time. That includes numerous Sunday services, conferences, ordination rites, pastoral installations, and yes, even seminary. We know lots about the Good Shepherd and that "The Lord is my Shepherd." However, we would be hard-pressed to find cautionary examples of who not to follow. Some scripture is bad for business. What is a bad shepherd? Thus says the Lord:

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. (Ezekiel 34:2b-3).

If a pastor is fleecing his flock, there should be no expectation that he has the character to perform the loving works that good shepherding requires. I don’t care how many turkeys they donate at Thanksgiving, their standard of living should not be far beyond the average member of the congregation if doing so comes at the congregation’s expense. People with no more than a bus pass should not be buying Bentleys for others. Jesus rode a donkey.

The problem with Eddie Long did not begin with the recent allegations of sexual misconduct. The problem is that he fits God’s description of a bad shepherd perfectly. If your spiritual leader will not allow you to avail yourself of the benefits of charity, discipleship, and fellowship, without first seeing your W-2, he doesn’t love you any more than a pimp loves a whore. A pastor should not use the contributions to the church as his means to moving up the socio-economic ladder beyond what the free-market would bear. To make matters worse, they take it personally when members do not give enough to sustain shameless spending.

Eddie Long’s other big problem is his perversion of the gospel. Any student of scripture can see the otherworldliness of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus said it himself in John 18:36: my kingdom is not of this world. That proclamation is consistent with everything else in the bible that points away from our carnal desires for God’s fulfillment of His promises in our lives. Jesus did not come to create an investment club whereby tithes and offerings provide returns to elevate one’s economic standing. The abundant life Jesus promised is about transcendent power beyond the things of this world.

The character failing that allows one to perverse the gospel makes room for all manner of malfeasance. The nature of them is just details. A minister might be into misappropriating funds, womanizing, mind-control, or you name it. We are warned in 2 Timothy 3:1-7:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.

Look around you. We all have access to the truth through God’s word, spiritual discernment, and our natural senses. Never have I encountered a scandal like this without threadbare red flags all over the wreckage. Well-known secrets abound in communities of faith everywhere. The price we pay for acknowledging them is the path to the cross. What is done in the dark will always come to light. The church will alienate you and scandalize your name, but the truth shall make you free to be led by one who will lead you to the path of righteousness for His namesake.

"So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

If the allegations are true, the quality of Eddie Long’s ministry becomes even more devalued. Jesus issued seven woes to religious leaders at the end of his earthly ministry in the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Reading them in light of the allegations and things Eddie Long has said on record is chilling. Basically, Jesus condemns those having good religious form, but not practicing what they preach. Eddie Long went to great lengths to promote an anti-gay agenda during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. His credibility is on the line. No amount of legal wrangling can reconcile his alleged homosexuality with his Pharisaic rhetoric. If he meets the moral standard that he has established for everyone else, then he should be proclaiming such from the rooftops. His ambiguous non-statements are sounding suspect.

Again, particular situations are just details. Believers must seek God’s truth for themselves. Ignoring scripture not brought to one’s attention by one’s spiritual leader is inexcusable. Institutions are in the business of preserving themselves—for better and for worse. When businesses face challenges, they enlist consultants, publicists, and lawyers to overcome them. The institutional church—as a business no less—follows the same pattern in cases such as the current scandal surrounding Eddie Long. However, we are called to be more than that. Now is the time for the church not only to demand the truth, but also ridding itself of every well-known secret. God will not be mocked.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Genesis of the Madness

This blog was born out of my religious practice in the institutional church. It was either give expression to my experience or go crazy. I was actually half-way there when I realized that I would only meet the church at the end of the road. So here I am.

As Kierkegaard said “the relief provided by speaking is that it translates me into the universal.” I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. God already knows this setup does not make sense to the human mind. We only oppress ourselves with the delusion that faith is not only rational, but is always a pleasure. Glorify God with a hallelujah anyhow!

I was raised in the church. Actually, I was sent there every Sunday by parents who needed some alone time. Trust me, my siblings and I attended Sunday school 52 weeks out of the year. Hey, it beat paying a sitter. Other parents eventually caught on. In no time, all of the neighborhood children began to find their way to church at nine every Sunday morning. It was not a bad hustle while it lasted.

As the weeks went by, I realized that we did not fit in. The children who were not of our set behaved differently. They came in, sang hymns robotically, and sat unnervingly blank as the teachers read recycled lessons from little booklets with pictures of white people they said were from places where the native inhabitants were of color. They were like little Stepford children whose parents were less concerned about their soul salvation than social control. “Teach them to be well-behaved, drug-free, and sexually abstinent however you can” was their mantra. “If they get too deep into Jesus my cover might be blown.” We didn’t have that kind of pressure on us. Our parents were content to have the house to themselves for a couple of hours a week.

Much to our Sunday school teachers’ chagrin, we brought the fun. The lessons began with biblical passages followed by the stale narratives that did not connect with our reality and what we should glean from them. We were the first generation of the post-Civil Rights era growing up in Chocolate City no less. Social justice, not social climbing is at the core of the gospel. “Prepare us for the revolution!” we begged. Little did we know, we not supposed to engage them; we were supposed to swallow the lessons whole. “Forget about loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind” they insinuated. “Drink the Kool-Aid.”

Well, being from the ‘hood breeds a healthy sense of skepticism. “I hear you talking, but is that really in the Bible?” “Is that what God is really saying here?” “Do you adhere to these teachings yourself or are they just for the masses?” They weren’t ready for us.

Well several churches, a seminary degree, and thousands of dollars worth of therapy have led me to more insightful, erudite, and expensive versions of these questions. This project began as I approached total insanity trying to align what I experienced in the church with the messages of scripture and God's revelation to me personally. I stopped as I saw the church well ahead of me. Then I embraced the cross and the burden of an institution to mitigate my faith rolled away.

Remaining in the faith does require a degree of insanity for basing the pattern of one’s entire life on a man rising from the grave 2000 years ago. There's no way around that. However, God doesn’t want believers to abandon all reason. God commands us to be as shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Resurrection faith opens a whole new realm of thought that makes the impossible possible. Only the foolishness of the cross empowers the mind; man-made foolery—the likes of which never cease to amaze—insults the intelligence and ultimately leads to destruction.

One of the greatest miracles in my life is that I still believe. On top of that, I have committed my life to the professional service of the gospel. Why bother after witnessing all manner of malfeasance, insincerity, and corruption in the church? What kind of God would allow tragedy to favor befall the just and unjust in seemingly random patterns? I’ve lived my life the way God led; where are my earthly spoils? After those things let me down, He restored me.

It’s a good thing that my hope is not built in any person or earthly thing. It would fail every time. However, I am crazy enough to believe there is so much more to God than any single human, object, or concept can capture. When those things fail, He meets me. Faith is a huge risk because there is always a chance that one is wrong. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. He came that we might have life and life abundantly. The reward is not all material; it is a better quality of life that defies explanation. Put a little madness in your life, but take it with a grain of salt.